A lingering cloud

A study that began more than 30 years ago in Quincy shows that family arguing leaves a long-lasting imprint on children

By Elizabeth Cooney
Globe Correspondent / April 27, 2009
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We've all been there.

The family argument starts over something small. Your spouse promised to be home on time, and wasn't. No apology followed. Resentment festers, and the argument escalates. Before long, it's no longer about punctuality. It's about respect. The volume goes up, the tone turns harsher, the wounds get deeper.

The kids are caught in the crossfire, just as you were when your own parents fought their wars of words. Or maybe you're fighting with them, too, stamping out brush fires of teenage rebellion.

It's just normal family tension, you tell yourself. But what if you knew the effect of such arguments could linger for more than a decade, clouding your child's future?

There is new evidence that family arguing leaves a long-lasting imprint on children, diminishing their future happiness and ability to prosper in the world - even when the anger is verbal, not physical. The evidence comes from a landmark study that began more than 31 years ago in Quincy kindergartens, and continues with little fanfare today. The Simmons Longitudinal Study has followed more than 300 one-time kindergartners into adulthood, tracking them along the way, recording their childhood experiences, and matching that history against who they are in middle age.

It is the nation's longest running study of what determines good or bad mental health from childhood. Participants remain anonymous to everyone except each other and the researchers, who continue to observe how lives unfold - and every few years release a study on the lessons therein.

The most recent, published last month in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, focused on family arguments and physical violence. It looked at the effects of parents fighting with each other, and with their children.

As might be expected, participants interviewed at age 18 who reported physical violence at home had higher rates of mental and physical troubles at 30. But it also found that 15-year-olds exposed to their parents' verbal battles, or involved in family arguments, were more likely to be functioning poorly at age 30 than other people in the study who did not live in increasingly fight-filled homes.

The children exposed to family fighting were two to three times more likely to be unemployed, suffer from major depression, or abuse alcohol or other drugs by age 30. They also were more likely to struggle in personal relationships, but that was evident to a somewhat lesser degree.

Helen Reinherz of Simmons College, who has led the Quincy study since its inception in 1977 and watches "her kids" with scientific interest and personal compassion, found the lasting effects surprising.

While it makes sense that physical violence scars children, she said, "the documentation of the potential lasting influence of verbal conflict is significant. . . . We believe that exposure to increased family argument in adolescence served as an important marker for impaired functioning into adulthood."

Added Reinherz: "Fifteen-year-olds are very volatile at that age. It's kind of amazing to me that these kids who had arguments, which everybody thinks is part and parcel of being an adolescent, were still at age 30 showing there were strong associations between existing in that environment and a variety of negative outcomes."

Of course, there are other kinds of adversity that might also account for later problems in life. But even after allowing for such things as poverty or divorce, the study found that growing up amid argument made a difference in later mental and physical health, personal relationships, and career success.

"We've known for a long time that family violence is terribly bad to be around," said Dr. William Beardslee, a Children's Hospital Boston psychiatrist and a coauthor of the most recent paper to emerge from the Simmons study. "Now we also know a climate of argumentativeness, of frequent verbal arguments, is not good for children."

What makes an atmosphere of arguing so toxic? And what can families do to avoid or control the damage?

"You almost have to give a prescription to parents who are fighting not to fight in front of their kids," said Joseph Powers, a family therapist at McLean Hospital.

Parents need to understand the effect of marital bickering, he said, and watch for signs: Some kids pull back from the conflict they see. Others take on the role of mediator, running in to stop the fight. Some become combatants themselves.

"That starts to show itself as a way of coping with stress," Powers said.

As bad as fighting between parents is, more serious damage can be done when parents lash out at children.

"It's not just yelling and screaming," that does the damage, said Dr. Martin Teicher, a developmental psychiatry researcher at McLean. " It's 'I wish you were never born' or 'You're not as good as your brother.' "

Teicher has tracked the powerful effects of ridicule and disdain on children, and found the corrosive effect of such repeated parental verbal abuse can be measured in major depression and anxiety. It can rival the damage caused by sexual abuse by someone outside the family, Teicher's research has found.

Teicher has also explored physical changes in the brain related to witnessing domestic violence or suffering verbal abuse, severe corporal punishment, or sexual abuse. There appears to be a specific effect on the brain related to the type of stress experienced, he said.

Milder stress has also been linked to potential damage. Researchers from the University of California at Los Angeles detected higher rates of a protein linked to cardiovascular disease in teens who reported stressors such as fights with parents, friends, or classmates.

Arguments don't have to descend into verbal abuse, experts say. The solution is to make the arguments constructive, or, failing that, to swiftly repair the damage of heated words. When ruptures do occur, saying sorry right away can heal the harm.

"There are stresses in the life of a family," Powers said. "But families also have the capacity to repair that, to come to the person and say, 'I just blew it, I'm very sorry, and can we do this another way?' "

There are other ways for families to prevent problems.

"It really is about trying to teach people how to be able to communicate what they think and feel in a way that is constructive and not destructive," said Michelle Fagnano, director of prevention services at the Massachusetts Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

"It does take work to undo some of the damage that gets done," she said. "No family is perfect and every family in one way or another argues, but it is what you do with that argument that will have the greater impact in the long haul."

Reinherz says just learning to talk to each other is essential. "The family is such an important crucible," she said. "That's why it's so important to help families communicate with each other."

Elizabeth Cooney can be reached at

Advice for parents

There are no easy answers when it comes to being a good parent, the professionals say. "Sometimes we have to realize how humbling an experience it is to take on the responsibility to be a parent, and how it will bring out our best and our most vulnerable sides," said Joseph Powers, a family therapist at McLean Hospital. He offers some things to consider when arguments seem to be getting the upper hand in family dynamics.

How should parents handle disagreements?
Parent groups or self-help books can offer strategies, but parents also need to put time aside to talk through their issues privately. Don't argue in front of children.

But if an argument does break out?
Apologize, right the wrongs, and find another way to deal with conflict the next time.

How do you deal with conflict?
Check how many positive versus negative comments you make to your children or your spouse. If the ratio is slanted to the negative, take note.

Are arguments hurting your child?
Watch out for signs of withdrawal or aggression. Check with teachers, coaches, other parents to see if they've spotted changes. Talk to your child and consider consulting with a healthcare provider.

What about arguments in the past?
Adults might want to talk to a professional counselor about their own childhood troubles, to avoid repeating patterns that did not help them and won't help their own children.

Where can parents find help?
Children's Trust Fund (

Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children M-F, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Protective child welfare agency; provides information and referral; adolescent parent services; and family advocacy services. 800-442-3035

Parental Stress Hotline: 24 hours, seven days. Support and referrals for parents with children of any age, as well as for other family members, caregivers, friends, and relatives. 800-632-8188

SOURCE: Joseph Powers; Massachusetts Dept. of Public Health's helpline directory